As Matt Ellis drove the Tacoma Bellarmine Preparatory School girls’ cross-country team to the high school state championships in November, he was confident his athletes were focused on running, which they were, but not exactly on Pasco, Wash., the site of their meet. They were thinking about a place much further east—the Republic of Kenya.
Organizers of a program known as chasingKIMBIA (the name is derived from a Swahili word meaning “to run”) had begun a contest that would send an American runner to live and train at the Kenyan elite athlete camp in Iten. The girls were plotting to get Matt to Africa.
As he concentrated on the road unfolding in front of the school’s minibus, Matt’s runners were clandestinely composing letters in their notebooks on their coach’s behalf, helped by biographical information they had secretly obtained from his wife, Nancy. When they returned from Pasco, they sent the letters to chasingKIMBIA.
Kenya has almost mythical status among distance runners. Those with long memories will recall Kenyan Kipchoge Keino defeating American Jim Ryun in the 1,500 meters at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, thus putting his country on the athletic map. More recently Kenyan runners have dominated the Boston Marathon, winning all but two of the men’s titles in the past 17 years.
Matt finally found out what was going on when chasingKIMBIA notified him he was one of 19 semi-finalists who had been winnowed down from nearly 200 entrants.
“In my 21 years in athletics, I have never been as surprised and humbled as I was yesterday,” Matt wrote in the essay he submitted for consideration to become a finalist. “For the athletes of Bellarmine Prep to write essays on my behalf, to enter me into a contest that they know I would love to participate in as a runner, a coach, and a person, is humbling.”
A week later, one of his athletes came into class and casually asked if he’d checked the chasingKIMBIA Web site lately. To Matt’s astonishment, he learned he was one of seven finalists.
Now the girls really pulled out the stops. They campaigned tirelessly during Thanksgiving week, urging their friends to cast online votes for their coach. Their campaign worked. Matt not only won the popular vote but also the “electoral” vote—he received more judges’ votes than any other finalist. ChasingKIMBIA asked Matt’s athletes to break the news to him while they documented his reaction on video.
This victory was almost certainly the high point of a running career that began at Seattle’s Bishop Blanchet High School. After graduation in 1989, Matt entered UPS and had two relatively undistinguished years as a runner. A collision with a steeplechase barrier sidelined him for part of his freshman year, while he suffered from mononucleosis as a sophomore. Then he blossomed as part of a group that, he says, “helped build something while we were there.” He was one of five seniors who went to NAIA nationals in track and earned All-America honors.
With a degree in English literature, Matt followed his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather into teaching after a brief stint in pharmaceutical research. Hired at Bellarmine to teach history and psychology in 1997, he quickly gravitated to coaching. He developed Brie Felnagle, Washington’s greatest female prep distance runner, whose 4:39.71 mile in 2005 is a state all-time best and fifth fastest in U.S. history. Now at the University of North Carolina, she’s training under the auspices of the Olympic Development Program with an eye on next year’s Olympics.
While Matt still finds time to run 50–70 miles each week and boasts personal bests of 14:40 in the 5K and 2:31 in the marathon, he says, “I have no illusions of grandeur. I recognize my level of talent and found my ceiling. So my primary emphasis is on coaching.”
This emphasis has obviously endeared Matt to his athletes. In her nominating essay, one of his runners wrote, “The single most deserving person of this opportunity is my high school cross-country coach, Matt Ellis. Known to all as just ‘Ellis,’ he has dedicated his life to the Bellarmine women’s running program. Since he began coaching here in 1998, he has stressed his full commitment to the team and willingness to sacrifice his time, effort, and energy to mentor and train any runner who wants his help.”
So his departure on a chilly day in mid-January was both a reward and heartfelt note of thanks. He landed in Nairobi to 70-degree weather and quickly entered a state of near nirvana.
“It was sort of a homecoming,” he said. “In the U.S., distance runners are second-class citizens. In Kenya there was an article in the papers on track or running every day. It was great to be in a place where other people value what you also value.”
“I met with the guys every morning. But I couldn’t do every workout. It was very humbling, at 7,000 feet, to try to hang on to world-class marathoners.” He has especially vivid memories of a 10K time trial. “They told me to just do a 5K, and it was super hard. I got drilled but it was invigorating and well worth it.”
The trip was much more than a chance to literally rub shoulders with top marathoners. Matt also visited a number of schools. Perhaps the most meaningful encounter was meeting Brother Colm O’Connell, who has taught at St. Patrick’s School in Iten for more than three decades, and who, since 1989, has directed the Iten Athletics Training Center, a month-long camp in April and December. He has played a vital role in establishing the Kenyan distance running tradition.
The primary reason for this tradition? Matt gave this explanation in one of his blog entries on the chasingKIMBIA Web site: “‘Number one,’ Bro. Colm says, while he grabs his left pinkie finger with his right hand, ‘daily rhythm.’ Any observing eye can sense the beautiful rhythm with which a Kenyan runs. The life of a young Kenyan is one of natural rhythm. Up with sunrise—often to bed with sunset. Most Kenyans don’t have watches, and even if they do, many if not most, can tell the time of day without it.’”
In another entry Matt noted, “Be Present: the most important comment of Brother Colm’s impromptu coaching clinic this afternoon. Being present allows for spontaneity in life—but also in training and racing. People [here] are present—present in the moment—present to other people,” he wrote on the Web site. “Not attached to computers, TV, video games, but attached to people.”
He left Kenya on February 12, nearly a month after his arrival, bearing memories that will undoubtedly last a lifetime.
“There were many, many high points,” he concluded. “I definitely want to go back. I’d love to take my wife and maybe even a couple of athletes.”
— Jim Whiting
You can read more of Matt’s thoughts on his time in Kenya at www.chasingKIMBIA.com.